Over the course of its centuries-long history, the American labor movement has evoked strong responses — some supportive, some less so — from writers, artists, musicians, and creative types who seek to comment upon, endorse, or criticize labor organizing. The movement has seen a significant resurgence in recent years and has even made progress at restaurants and bars, places where organizers have historically failed to dent.
Chicago’s coffeeshops have seen much of the change, with employees at chains like Colectivo Coffee and Starbucks working with union organizers. The movement at Starbucks is part of a nationwide effort, with an October closure in Edgewater fueling allegations of employer retaliation.
That energy has made its way into a seemingly unlikely venue: a tabletop role-playing game dubbed Cosmic Latte that plants its players squarely inside the highest-pressure barista gig in the universe. Playable solo or in groups in 30 minutes or less, the game centers on minor gods (the players) tasked with catering to the whims of unfathomably powerful celestial beings by creating coffee drink-inspired planets (yes, planets) through written descriptions.
The game’s creator, Pearse Anderson (a recent Eater Chicago contributor), says the Edgewater shutter inspired him. The location shut down four days before workers were to begin the bargaining process for their first union contract. A Starbucks rep told reporters unspecified safety concerns prompted the closure, but employees and organizers from Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union, disagree. The union filed charges alleging unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming retaliation by Starbucks management.
Cosmic Latte’s players must race against the clock to complete increasingly difficult orders under ever-changing restrictions: Can they write a description without the letter “E?” Can they do it solely in short sentences, or even accomplish both all within 87 seconds? All the while, players also roll the dice to try and organize their intergalactic workplace to fight for improved conditions.
For Anderson, a writer who began making his own games in 2021, the incident (one that Workers United argues is part of a pattern at Starbucks) served as a springboard for addressing the problems he sees in the company’s policies writ large. That 87 seconds that bears down on planet-builders in Cosmic Latte? It’s the same amount of time within which Starbucks workers are expected to make and serve a 16-step Frappuccino. (The company recently announced plans to cut that time nearly in half.)
“This game is a satire and parody of that work culture,” he says. “This isn’t supposed to be a jab at the worker. [In the game] you’re a minor god that creates planets, but if you still don’t collectively organize with other minor gods, you can still be oppressed.”
Drawing on conceptual elements from Marvel’s Eternals, the hit cosmic sci-fi comic We Only Find Them When They’re Dead, and the galaxy-building game Space Between Stars, Anderson says he hopes that players will both enjoy the otherworldly setting and recognize the underlying elements of today’s working world.
“This is about gods in space making things that are chowder-, almond-, and khaki-colored planets,” he says. “But I hope it can inspire and support workers, specifically food workers, here in Chicago on the ground.”
Would-be players can choose their own price and download the game online. Anderson plans to split the proceeds between the mutual aid group Starbucks Workers Solidarity Fund and the campaign for 48th Ward aldermanic candidate Nick Ward, a community organizer and restaurant worker who ranks labor issues among his top priorities.